I read with interest about Michael Bloomberg’s latest good deed—that is, his initiative to get more high-performing lower-income high school students into top colleges. That is an easy initiative to support. I had just written an article about how guidance counselors are not really equipped to do what needs to be done for most high school seniors (both because guidance counselors are overworked and because they lack the background and personal experience with a wide variety and large number of colleges to help students make an informed choice). Bloomberg’s plan to hire full-time counselors (who, I hope, are truly qualified), bring in current college students as part-time advisors, provide application-fee waivers, and so on is great—as far as it goes.
I understand the impulse of philanthropists, politicians, business leaders, and other thoughtful individuals to take care of lower-income smart kids who do not have the family background and cannot afford the outside help they would likely need to navigate the confusing waters of college admissions, especially to the best schools. But let me say a word or two about the lower-income average students who cannot figure out how to get into college either.
In the public Early College high school I co-founded in Brooklyn, we took in average and not-quite-average students coming out of eighth grade classrooms across all five boroughs. Though our innovative school was designed to operate on trimesters and send kids to college early after just three years (instead of the traditional four), our students were typical New York City public school students. Most of them were not high performing; they did not take entrance exams or need impressive middle school grades to get into our school. Our principal, Chris Aguirre, said from the beginning that this school would be for all kids, especially those who had not gotten a break in elementary or middle school, often through no fault of their own. As you might guess, there are a lot of these average and not-quite-average students.
Our small high school gave these average and not-quite-average students, mostly from lower-income families, every advantage—from small class sizes to hand-picked teachers to rigorous high school courses to college classes to staff focused almost entirely on getting them into the right college. Most high schools in the U.S. cannot possibly do that. And still, getting them into the right program at the right college was a struggle, even though many of them were going directly into our Early College partner, the CUNY campus across the street.
The fact is that there are more average students than top-performing students. Average students also need the best higher education they can get, and there are many colleges in the U.S. that will happily take average students and give them a good education that will improve their chances of having a productive career. Affluent average students go to those colleges; lower-income average students more often get lost in the shuffle. That’s what Bloomberg’s plan will not fix.
By the way, some of those low-income average students might have been top-performing high school students if their lives had been a bit different—if they had not been living on couches with relatives or in homeless shelters, if they were not working at night at a fast-food restaurant, if their public middle schools had been better, if they had gotten extra help when they needed it in earlier grades, and so on. That means that they could turn into top-performing college students, given a chance at college.
So, kudos to Bloomberg. But now, who is going to work on the problem for all the rest of the kids?